Sri Lanka: Hill Country

On Wednesday another day of traveling meant another early morning, this time to catch the 6AM train from Kandy to Ella. A photographer's dream, this seven hour train ride is consistently ranked as one of the most beautiful in the world. 

Even though we arrived an hour before departure, there was still a queue of backpackers waiting to buy tickets, snaking out into the morning sunlight. Due to the popularity of this route, reserved tickets are sold out week in advance, leaving us to brave the second class car. On the platform scores of foreigners anxiously awaited the train's arrival. 

It was only after jostling to get on first that we recognized all of our work was for naught. Locals had already occupied almost all the seats, leaving us tourists to fight over the best place in the aisle to sit on our bags. It was at this time that it was perhaps most opportune to remember the plaques with Buddhist saying that lined the corridors of the train station: "Success isn't final. Failure isn't final. It is courage that counts."

Eventually the train started whistling, the engine started rumbling, the wheels started the monotonous churning, and we lurched out of the station. 

For the next seven hours our view was dominated in both directions by the abundance of the hill country's absurd beauty. As we wound out of Kandy and into the surrounding hillsides, the forest turned to agriculture and the hillsides turned to terraces, home to Sri Lanka's famous tea plantations. Two colors dominated the rest of our day: blue and green. 

A clear sky offered the backdrop for this delightful journey, and the verdant countryside assaulted our irises with vegetation. It seemed as though every square inch had been densely covered in overgrown jungle or manicured to grow tea, and the valleys spread out across the horizon like nature's playpen. 

Each time the train approached a curve was another opportunity for a photo opportunity worthy of National Geographic, as I could spy elbows, camera lenses, and heads sticking out of the windows and doors of baby blue cars. 

Inside the train, the situation was still overwhelming but thankfully the locals were more than accommodating, squeezing in their seats to make room and striking up conversation. The elderly man next to me lamented the lack of English taught in Sri Lanka today and debated the EU immigration policies with impressive vernacular before yielding his seat upon departure. 

As we wound through the hilly region, clouds hung in the air like silhouettes painted against the blue backdrop. At eye level, locals stopped their daily routines to wave or smile at the cars rattling past. Through rural areas and tiny sleeps station, our journey continued upwards into the mountains.

This was the heart of Sri Lanka's tea country; as far as the eye could see the rolling green hills were dotted with green bushes, their pathways interspersed with workers picking off leaves in the sweltering midday heat. 

At times the plantations would give way to long stretches of undeveloped forest or sheer rock cliffs, leaving me with the joyous act of simply sticking my head out the window like a dog's snout, the wind whipping across my face. 

Just like a pup, I eventually succumbed to the combination of the warm sun and the train's monotonous rattling to fall into a light doze. When I was jostled awake, I saw that we had literally ascended into the clouds, adding another layer of mystique to the already fantastical journey. 

On board, evidence of Sri Lanka's booming tourism industry took shape. Slowly yet steadily, locals departed at tiny villages and more tourists hopped on bord, until the only Sri Lankan left on our car was the woman in a traditional Sari sitting next to me. Compared to the near-constant clicking of shutters and smartphones cameras, she placidly took the landscape in with her own two eyes, offering a taste of what life must have consisted of in decades past. 

The last two hours of the journey were perhaps the most breathtaking. Here the speed slowed as the number of curves increased, but the stops were few and far between. Now trees began to truly dominate the landscape: the exhilarating views on both sides of the train offered dramatic cliffs, towering palm trees and thick jungle undergrowth. 

This luscious vegetation combined with striking views to create the microcosm known as Ella, Sri Lanka's worst kept secret. As we stumbled off the train and into the blistering afternoon heat, Stefje and I were both transported into the memories of trips to similarly overrun villages in Thailand, Laos, or Vietnam. This is Southeast Asia and its ultimate backpacking apex: an endless string of guesthouses, restaurants, and bars led the way into the town's center.

The demographics of Ella are surprisingly simple. Every single Sri Lankan resident is either directly or indirectly associated with the tourism industry. Among the outsiders, my ears caught tastes of a multitude of languages. Chinese, German, Japanese, Dutch, French, and English all represented well, as travellers turn Ella into the makeup of a model UN. 

Stefje and I made our way to our guesthouse, high up in the hillsides and mentally removed from the chaos of town. We settled in over an afternoon tea and were profusely welcomed by the host family. From our balcony vantage point, no less than twenty wild monkeys were going nuts right in front of our eyes, swinging from canopy branches and ripping open massive jackfruits to suck out the sugars. 

Utterly exhausted from the train ride, we passed out with the sun that evening. The following morning the monkeys returned, getting dangerously close as they tried to swipe elements of our resplendent breakfast. On the basis of sheer circumstance, it was the best meal of the trip. 

While we feasted on coconut roti and a wealth of local delicacies, the monkeys had a rambunctious morning just a few meters from our face. The shook the branches with aggressive force in an attempt to drop the ripest fruit, scurried up and down smooth bamboo shoots with incredibly agility, and groomed each other in the peaceful morning light. 

Soon afterwards we packed up a backpack with snacks and set off on the trail to Ella Rock. The area's most demanding hike is also the most rewarding one, but the sun was beating down on our backs and causing us to perspire profusely within minutes of departing. 

When the trail diverged from the railway tracks we had been following, we worked our way across a river and then steadily upwards, trekking first through chest high grass, then criss-crossing amongst tea bushes, then finally starting the steep ascent to the top within a Eucalyptus grove.

For the last half hour we huffed and puffed, our calves straining against the intense incline of the path while our brows dripped with sweat. Finally the trail evened out and our eyes feasted on the stupendous view while a welcoming breeze cooled down our bodies. 

To the left, the city of Ella was framed like a postcard in the distance. Innumerable guesthouses and hotels under construction blighted the otherwise perfect view. 

Straight ahead was my favorite scene, a steep hillside covered in brilliant green grasses plunging into the ravine below our feet. As my eyes panned to the right, trees began to pop up like tiny matchsticks on the slope, clumping into groups wherever water flowed the strongest. 

Eventually these pockets morphed into a fully fledged forest, filling our field of vision with overgrowth. Furthest afield, the narrow valley opened up into an expensive plain, offering an awesome sense of the scale of the countryside. In the distance we could even glimpse the next range of mountains popping up on the horizon, their forms mashed by an eerie mist. 

Eventually our peaceful repose was interrupted by the arrival of a gaggle of hikers, so we wound up retreating down the path, stopping along the way for a refreshing coconut break. 

That afternoon we set off to explore a different segment of Ella's surroundings, starting by working our way out of town on foot. The experience confirmed our worst fears: the city has turned into an everlasting construction project with no end in sight. The city center is already overrun with traffic, as busses and trucks sped through at dangerous speeds alongside unsuspecting pedestrians loaded with luggage. As we navigated the outskirts of town, it was apparent that Ella is in the midst of an infrastructure boom. 

Multi-story hotels are popping up in every direction and new piping systems are being laid for sewage, yet the abundance of trash diminishes most of the desired beauty. Seemingly every local has converted a spare bedroom into a homestay, eager to cash in on the boom. 

Further along the road, we veered off and started traipsing through the jungle in hops of encountering our final destination, the Nine Arches bridge. Built by British forces while Ceylon was still a colony in the 1920's the impressive structure offers picturesque views from high above the jungle canopy. 

It was now late in the afternoon, so we pushed our tired legs onwards for one last walk, following the railway tracks all the way back to our secluded hillside hideaway. 

That night the proprietor of our guesthouse offered to cook us a traditional Sri Lankan dinner, and we ended up with one of the best meals of the trip. Traditional rice and curry was brought to another level, featuring fresh pumpkin, jackfruit, and dhal curries. Yet the dish that had me licking my fingers was a delectable eggplant stir-fried with vinegar. 

Friday morning started slowly, with breakfast on the balcony turning into a leisurely affair. As such, it was mid-morning by the time we wandered into town searching for a tuk-tuk. It was time to head to one of Sri Lanka's classic tourist destinations - a tea factory. 

Winding along a combination of paved roads, dirt paths, and rocky driveways, we ascended high into the hills of Ella. From the vantage point of the plantation's balcony, rice fields faded into a patchwork quilt, farmers were reduced to tiny ants, and roads transformed into sand-colored snakes that shed their skin as each speeding car whipped up dust. 

In every direction we turned, a modern day paradise was laid out before us. 

Our guide for the tour was a ball of self-sustaining energy spouting knowledge about the process of making tea. Citing such disparate endeavours as biology, physics, and mechanical engineering, he walked us from tea leaves to a freshly brewed cup. 

What struck me as most intriguing was how the factory, by adjusting the many machines within its repertoire, could produce no less than seven different types of tea from a single leaf. Equally impressive was the fact that this single factory produces more than one million kilograms of tea every year, which is then consumed domestically and exported around the world.